The Mediating Body

This paper proposes a construal of mediality from a philosophy of embodiment perspective. This theoretical development contributes to recent efforts to understand technological media as relying on and, therefore, shaped by the basic mediality evoked by (human) corporeality. This contributes to Cobley’s (2016) proposal to understand culture as a modelling process, which accommodates intermediality and multimodality, and not as text, which suggests a medial singularity and monomodality of human environments.

For this purpose, a semiotic notion of the body, as initiated in biosemiotics (Stjernfelt 2006, Hoffmeyer 2008) is developed. The resulting framework contributes to bridging biosemiotic and social semiotic theories, the parallel development of which marks the enduring polarization between cognitive and sociocultural linguistics. To deliver to both of these theories an operational concept of the body, two recent concepts are considered: (1) that of medium as extension of the mind, following Elleström’s media semiotic theory and (2) Mittelberg’s notion of exbodied mind. Elleström (2018) explains that, from the perspective of embodied cognition, McLuhan’s classic definition of medium as an extension of the human body can be refined to extension of mind. Mittelberg (2013) observes that the inner structures of knowledge organization, deemed to belong to the embodied mind, are also external. Gestures, for instance, display the exbodied mind. The construal of mind as simultaneously embodied and exbodied implies that meaning-making originates in the iconic mediation between inner and outer world. These are not conceived as separate entities. Rather, this view is compatible with the biosemiotic notion of environment as subjectively constructed model (Umwelt) which, as layed out by Nöth (1998), forms a hermeneutic circle with Innenwelt, because the latter contains a cognitive model of the former. 

This semiotic approach to embodiment implies that, in brief, organisms do not think only with the body but, more broadly, within an environment. It serves as the premise for a semiotic notion of the body as that which mediates between Umwelt and Innewelt. Following Brandt’s (2011) cognitive semiotic theory, embodiment and exbodiment are mediated through iconic signs. The basic structures of knowledge organization, translating between inner and outer, are icons because they must be afforded by the morphology (brain-body structure) of the (human) body and its environmental positioning and relationality. The ecological notion of affordance has recently been adopted in media studies, as different technological media are observed to have different affordances for representation. The argument here is that by conceiving the body as emergent of mediality, the (environmental) affordances of organisms are conceived as medial. From this perspective, the development of technological media, that is, humans’ extensions of their minds, has the rationale of enhancing some medial affordances, which implies restricting others. This allows for a methodology of analysing media products and, therefore, culture as rooted in corporeality, which is exemplified to conclude the argument. 

Brandt, P.A, ‘What is cognitive semiotics? A new paradigm in the study of meaning’, Signata Annales des sémiotiques / Annals of Semiotics, vol. 2, 2011, pp. 49–60.
Cobley, P., Cultural implications of biosemiotics, Dordrecht: Springer, 2016.
Elleström, L., ‘A medium-centered model of communication’, Semiotica, vol. 224, 2018, pp. 269–293.
Hoffmeyer, J., ‘The semiotic body’, Biosemiotics, vol. 1(2), 2008, pp. 169–190.
Mittelberg, I., ‘The exbodied mind: cognitive-semiotic principles as motivating force in gesture’, Body – Language – Communication: An international handbook on multimodality in human interaction, vol. 1, eds. Müller, C., Cienki, A., Fricke, E., Ladewig
Stjernfelt, F, ‘The Semiotic Body. A Semiotic Concept of Embodiment?’, Semiotic Bodies, Aesthetic Embodiments, and Cyberbodies, ed. Nöth, W., Kassel: Kassel University Press, 2016, pp. 13–48.

Alin Olteanu

RWTH Aachen University, Germany & Kaunas University of Technology, Lithuania

postdoctoral researcher at the Semiotics and Cognitive Linguistics Group at RWTH Aachen University and a senior researcher at the Sustainability and Civil Society Group at Kaunas University of Technology. He has published on semiotic approaches to learning theory, education, literacy and multiculturalism. By working in these directions, he was led to his current interest for digitalization.